Espionage and Military Intel in the Napoleonic Era– an Overview

Espionage and Military Intel in the Napoleonic Era– an Overview
By Alicia Rasley

Question: Is there a good source and British spying activity during the Napoleonic Wars both in England and on the continent? Which branch of the war office was in charge of covert operations and responsible for passing instructions to secret agents? Julie

Answer: I am currently researching a Napoleonic-era espionage series and have been disappointed with the paucity of source material. It’s not so surprising, after all, good spies bury their successes as well as their mistakes. Even after centuries, the secret service’s secrets are mostly still secret. But I’ve managed to put together profile of the British spying program from meager bits in espionage and military histories.

First, you should understand that “intelligence gathering” is an honorable military activity, while “espionage” is a dishonorable civilian activity (at least according to military officers). The distinction is not in the actual operation, please note: Both use covert eavesdropping, interception of messages, and the like. But a spy could be summarily hanged while an intelligence officer could expect to be treated like any other prisoner of war – as long as he was wearing his uniform while he conducted his secret scouting. An officer out of uniform was assumed to be a spy, as was Benedict Arnold’s contact British Major John Andre, who was hanged a few hours after his capture. This distinction is explored in Jock Haswell’s The First Respectable Spy, a biography of Colquoun Grant, Wellington’s intelligence chief.

Theoretically, military intelligence was directed by the Depot of Military Knowledge established by the Duke of York in 1803. This depot was in the attic of Horse Guards building. There were four departments, one of which was supposed to run agents on the continent. But when the war resumed, many of the officers went on active duty, and so the Horse Guards depot had little impact on the progress of the distant war. Most military intelligence was directed from field headquarters, that is, right there on the Peninsula.

There, the quartermaster general, George Murray for most of the war, was in charge of the “reconnaissance officers.” These were dashing young men like Colquoun Grant the first respectablewho rode around the countryside scouting the enemy encampments and buying stolen French dispatches from peasants. These officers were multilingual, well-supplied with bribery funds, and artistic enough to draw precise maps. In fact, Wellington’s superior knowledge of Peninsular terrain was a major factor in his success. The “recon officers” also made regular contact with guerrillas and the religious irregulars, a network of priests and seminarians, most of them Irish, who could move freely between France and Spain. Wellington’s military intelligence was mostly informal and locally-based, but much better than the French, who could expect no help from the Spanish.

The Admiralty also had a small intelligence-gathering unit run by the First Commissioner of the Admiralty. This unit inserted a few spies into France through secret landings on the coast, but the operations mostly seem to have involved mapmaking and estimating enemy force. One agent did kidnap the husband of Bonaparte’s mistress in 1799 and incite him to assassinate the general, but nothing came of it.

Actual espionage was the province of the foreign office, the home of James Bond’s future employer, His Majesty’s Secret Service. This again was a pretty minimal affair compared to the KGB and CIA, but here is where the spies really hung out. I found very little on the operations of the Secret Service agents during the war, but for the most part, their activities do not seem to be very sophisticated. They reported to the Secret Service Chief, usually an undersecretary, and were sent out to foment rebellion against Napoleon and bribe provincial officials. The greatest of them all was the elusive Colin Mackenzie, who within minutes of it signing got a copy of the secret Treaty of Tilsit allying Russia and France. In 1812, Mackenzie surveyed the contents of the Emperor’s library, found it heavy on Russian geography books, and predicted the invasion of Russia. He had several contacts in Paris among the Scots families who had fled Britain after the failed Stuart Rebellion but hated Napoleon more.
recon officer
Counterespionage was handled by the Home Office primarily. It appears they had ties with the constabulary and the local militia. From what I can tell, however, they spent more time battling labor protesters than French spies. All in all there seems to have been very little spying done inside Britain, except for émigrés in the exiled King French King’s Court who sold information to all sides.

As for funding, the Admiralty, the Foreign Office, and the Home Office shared in the secret fund voted by Parliament each year for illicit activities. Most of it was used for bribes in British elections, but a bit slipped through to fund spies. The secretaries did have to account for the dispersed funds, but I take it honesty was not required! In Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, Dr. Maturin is, in addition to the ship’s doctor, an occasional intelligence agent for the Admiralty and/or Foreign Office. He gets money to make his bribes and reward his sources from the “Privy Council,” which is the disburser of the secret accounts.
map of peninsula
The Royal Army, always a bastard service, received none of these funds, but its intelligence wing was the most effective is all of all, as far as we know. (After all, they won the war against great odds.)

The French Secret Service, by the way, ranged from immensely successful — getting one agent appointed intelligence chief in enemy Austria! – – worse than useless. Joseph Fouche, the minister of police and spymaster, spent most of his efforts spying on spies in the other French ministries. He could, however, supposedly claim the highest spy in the land – the empress Josephine.

Here are a few more sources that might help research British espionage:
Spies and Spymasters, C. Jock Haswell.
History of the British Secret Service, Richard Deacon.
The Master Book of Spies, Donald McCormick.
33 Centuries of Espionage, Richard Rowan.
Alicia’s latest book is Tryst at the Brighton Inn, a Regency CSI mystery.


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